The Rise Of Product Management

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The function and role of Product Management is increasingly becoming a really pivotal one in many digitally facing organisations. Having been aware of it’s increasing popularity amongst media owner organisations, the growing importance of Product Management into a much broader spectrum of businesses and sectors became clear when I was researching organisational structures and resourcing for Digital Marketing on behalf of the smart folk at Econsultancy late last year. From the subsequent project on The Progression Of Agency Value that I also did for Econsultancy earlier this year, it’s clear that there is also some fascinating take-outs here for agencies.

One of the interviewees for that initial research was Digital and Product Strategist Nic Newman. Nic has been focused on this growing discipline for a number of years – he was one of the founding members of the BBC News website and went on to develop a number of multiplatform products across BBC journalism. He now consults and is a visting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. He wrote a seminal paper on the subject called The State of Product Management(PDF) for the BBC Academy which you can download, as well as a couple of other great papers on Journalism In The Age Of Social Discovery, and Social Media In The Changing Ecology Of News.

Our paths have crossed a few times, and each time I’m rather fascinated by his views on the rise of Product Management. So I asked Nic if he would answer a few questions on the subject for the readers of this blog:

NP: What is a good pithy description for the role of a Product Manager?

NN: A product manager in the digital space is someone who really owns the whole process of creating and executing products that audiences love. That means everything from the product strategy and vision to the detailed delivery and the ongoing running of that product or service. That ongoing part is crucial – and it is what makes them different from project managers who flit from task to task.

The BBC often talks about a product manager as like a conductor of an orchestra in that they bring everything together; they co-ordinate and inspire; they embody success or failure. I think a football manager is another good analogy. Ultimately they are responsible for results – but there are some difficult characters in the boardroom and on the pitch who need to be managed. They need to be across the big strategic picture but also be across detailed tactics on the training ground – as well as the views of the fans. Ultimately they need to get the best out of the very different skills sets that make up the team. 

NP: Why is this role becoming so much more prevalent/important/pivotal?

NN: Everywhere you look the internet has created new competition and threatened long standing traditional businesses. Barriers to entry are falling, audiences can move to a competitor with a click of a mouse. In many cases having great content is no longer enough – it needs to be combined with great experience.

Creating those experiences requires having an understanding of technology, design and content and so you need people who understand all three. Steve Jobs talked about the magic that happens when the creative people and the technologists come together, but he also recognised that it’s very hard to do. That’s why Apple along with many of the other most successful companies in the technology an internet space employ product managers and give them a significant amount of power and control.

NP: What kind of people make good Product Managers? Are they hard to find?

NN: Both IBM and Ideo talk about T Shaped people – those who have may have a detailed understanding of one area but who know enough about the whole picture to be able to collaborate horizontally across disciplines. They’ll normally have a good understanding of technology, design and business needs but typically they’ll also have great communication skills, the ability to translate and synthesise. A great product manager sets the vision for what needs to be built but lets the discipline specialists use their creativity to contribute to that bigger whole.

And yes – given that job specification, it’s a tough ask. Developers can do it, but often don’t have the wider business vision. Marketers, editorial people or strategy people can be great product managers but often don’t have enough understanding to the complexities and discipline required to deliver great products. There are more and more good product managers in the media sector – but a real gap of people at a senior level who can confidently articulate product strategies in the boardroom.

NP: This seems to have been a role that has grown from within media organisations. Do you think it has relevance across a broader spectrum of businesses/sectors?

NN: It’s come from the technology companies more than the media sector – but media companies are increasingly adopting a product led approach because it makes sense as they move to a more complex multiplatform world with multiple touchpoints. They need people with more focus on the audience and the technology.

Most companies and sectors will recognise the need to work more horizontally and the growing importance of digital services and products in what they deliver. They have probably created these kind of hybrid cross-cutting roles themselves –but maybe called the job something different and not given it enough power in the organisation.

NP: What are the potential implications for marketers and ad planners?

NN: Brands are increasingly thinking and behaving like media companies. They need to run products and services and channels – either on their own or working with agencies. Content marketing is going to grow in importance and that’s all about the deployment of these skills in a digital space. It is also about that long-term ongoing commitment to a domain to an audience and to a product – not a one off campaign. Product strategy is going to be a much more important part of marketing success. 

Finally, product marketing and communication is a closely related discipline – and in the media industry the interfaces with the digital product manager are critical.

My thanks to Nic for taking the time to answer these questions.

Image credit: I took this photo on my recent trip to Kiev and if my very rusty O-level Russian is to be believed, it says ‘products’

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